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While the rest of the country is marveling at the fantastic return to glory of Tiger Woods, rising from never expected to become a contender again to Master’s champion Sunday, some of the rest of us were enthralled with the great start by the Twins, and the run to its second championship by UMD’s hockey team, and astounded by the four-game Stanley Cup sweeps administered to Tampa Bay and to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The New York Islanders startling sweep over Sidney Crosby and the Penguins was Minnesota-led, as Warroad’s Brock Nelson — grandson of Billy Christian — played a starring role. Coach Barry Trotz assigned Nelson to cover Crosby, who is still considered the NHL’s premier scoring threat by many. In the first three games, Nelson repeatedly whipped Crosby on face-offs, going 7-0 in the first period of the second game, and he prevented Crosby from scoring any goals or any assists through the first three games.
Crosby finally got an assist in Game 4, assisting on Mnnesotan Jake Guentzel’s opening goal at 0:35 of the first period, but the youthful and eager Islanders tied the game at 2:09. Brock Nelson scored his third goal of the series at 18:06, and it stood up as the winner when the Islanders got an empty-net goal to complete a 3-1 victory and eliminate the Penguins. It was Nelson’s second straight game-winning goal, after former Gopher Nick Leddy had the winner in Game 2.
Tampa Bay, the runaway best team in the entire NHL throughout the season, was stunned in the first two games at Tampa, and couldn’t get up to Columbus’s pace in Games 3 and 4 at Columbus. Tampa Bay had tied the NHL record for victories with 62 and accrued 128 points, behind Nikita Kucherov, who scored 128 points to lead the league, but was scoreless until Game 4, when he got two assists. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos finally got a goal too. The game was a lot closer than the final score of 7-3 indicates, because the Blue Jackets scored three empty-net goals.
But an enormous story — and an enormous black eye for hockey — came in Espoo, Finland, where one of the most incredible tournament performances in the history of women’s World Championships in hockey, was tarnished for posterity by absurd officiating.
The first shocker in the IIHF women’s tournament came in the semifinals, when the U.S. throttled Russia 8-0, but co-favorite Canada was upset 4-2 by Finland. The host team played the Canadians even and goaltender Noora Raty — who led the Gophers to a couple of NCAA titles — shut down Canada’s vaunted shooters.
That set up a Gold Medal game between the U.S., which was going for its fifth straight world championship, and the host country, which was hopeful to challenge for its first title. The Finns did more than challenge. Raty was absolutely brilliant, and Finland played the powerful and undefeated U.S. through a scoreless first period. Annie Pankowski of the Gophers scored to put Team USA ahead 1-0 in the second period, but Siusanna Tapani countered with a goal for Finland, and the two played to the finish of the third period 1-1.
The U.S. peppered Raty with shots, many of them Grade A, but it stayed 1-1. Alex Rigsby was the U.S. goaltender, playing both the semifinals and final ahead of UMD star Maddie Rooney, and she became a central figure in the outcome.
Finland’s standout Jenni Hiirikoski made a determined rush, bolting through two defenders for a shot that Rigsby blocked. From the shooter’s view, the save was at the left side of the net, and as the rebound bounced away to the left, Hirikoski cut toward it, hounded by a U.S. defender. Rigsby made a dive for the puck, with her entire upper body out of the crease to the left of the goal. All that was left in the crease was one leg, and Rigsby, coincidentally, raised her foot as she hit the ice, so no part of her was in the crease at the moment in question.
It was all happening in an instant, with Rigsby diving in Hiirikoski’s path, and she had no chance to avoid tripping over the sprawled goaltender. The puck was still loose, and Petra Nieminen, trailing the rush, was all alone to gain possession and shoot into the empty goal. The Finnish players erupted in glee, with their first world championship won in such dramatic fashion. They poured off the bench and swarmed Nieminen near the end boards.
One of the two female referees, on the video replay, could be seen starting to raise her arm as the goal was being scored, which seemed curious. The announcers were befuddled at the length of time of the review, and assumed they were calling the penalty on Hiirikoski for interfering with Rigsby. After the lengthy review, they waved off the goal, leaving the big and hopeful Finnish crowd in shock. Then they sent a U.S. player to the penalty box.
The call, officially, was a tripping penalty on Rigsby, which made sense, if anything had to be called, which it didn’t. After numerous reviews, the goal should have counted, and there was no need for any penalty on what amounted to incidental contact — Rigsby diving for a puck she didn’t get to, and Hiirikoski tripping over her.
That still left the reason for disallowing the goal in question. It took 24 hours before an official explanation was issued. The IIHF rule book says goaltender interference occurs if a goalie is bumped inside the crease, or when she (or he) leaves the crease but is controlling the puck. There was no control of the rebound on this play, so the call was ill-founded, and, in a word, absurd.
After one overtime, the World Championship came down to a shootout,. Ex-Gopher Amanda Kessel and Pankowski scored on the first two U.S. chances, while Finland could only get one on Rigsby, so Team USA won its fifth World Championship. This time, the usual fine sportsmanship was abandoned for a hail of boos raining down as the gold medals were awarded to the U.S. players.
The U.S. had outshot Finland 36-18 through three periods and the overtime, but the great thing about hockey is an outstanding goaltending performance is a great equalizer. The boos were unfortunate, although I don’t think they were intended to discredit the U.S. players or team, but to give a proper response to the officials. Finland coach pass Mustonen said there are so few highly qualified female referees that the game required more experienced refs.
It’s unfortunate that our level of sophisticated sportsmanship hasn’t reached the point where the U.S. coaching staff and players couldn’t stop the game, and say that Finland won, fair and square, and should have the gold medals.